Roberta Solomon - Getting the Most Out of Voice Talent with Directed Sessions, Effective Specs

Roberta Solomon is an uber-veteran of the voiceover industry.

Roberta Solomon is an uber-veteran of the voiceover industry.

There's a good chance you've heard Roberta's voice in the past week. She's one of the industry's most accomplished voice talents and she joins me on the first episode of In The Booth to discuss:

  • Saving time and money with directed sessions.

  • Tips for success when a directed session isn't possible.

  • Getting better auditions with better specs.

Learn more about Roberta and listen to her spectacular demos at RobertaSolomon.com.

Full Transcript

Eric Hurst: This is In the Booth. I'm Eric Hurst, and I'm joined in this episode by one of the voiceover industry's foremost talents. You've heard her on pieces for Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Late Late Show with James Corden, the French Open, ESPN, Animal Planet, and PBS. She's narrated Emmy winning documentaries, which makes her an Emmy winner in my book, and for the Smithsonian Channel and Nat Geo, she's the image and branding voice for hundreds of TV and radio stations, and in our prerecording call, she casually dropped the fact that her voice has been on the air for every single day for the past 40 years. Her voice is ubiquitous, and you've no doubt heard her recently. I'm speaking of Roberta Solomon. Roberta, thanks for joining me In the Booth.

Roberta Solomon: Thank you for having me, Eric. It's great to talk to you about all things voiceover.

EH: Yeah. That's some bio. You've been busy, you know?

RS: Well, I've been at it a long time, you know? It's an aggregate bio.

EH: Well, and that's one reason I wanted to talk with you, because you have been at it for a long time, and you've got so much knowledge, so I kind of just want to get right into it. You know, you're a big fan of client-directed sessions, as am I. Tell me why you're such a fan of directed sessions.

RS: Well, you know, directed sessions used to be the norm. Back in the day, you would go in, a voice talent would go into the studio, and the writer would be there, there would be a director, sometimes an account executive, the engineer is sitting behind the controls, and you were in the booth to do your thing. And it's what we do that's making TV and radio commercials and productions. It's a collaborative thing, but now, the way that the work has morphed, everyone's in their isolated little places. The writer is sitting in a coffee shop somewhere, and the voice talent is in a booth in their back bedroom, or in their basement. You know, the producer-

EH: I feel like the writer has the better gig there.

RS: Yeah, I think so, and the producer could be in another country, because we're all connected digitally. So often, what the talent will get is just the script, which is cool, but that's not the whole story. That's only part of the story. So I love it when the other people who are involved in the production are able to give me additional clues as to what the story is, and when we're doing the session in real time, and it's directed, I'm a much better performer. I'm a much better storyteller than if I'm just trying to sort of suss out the story myself, alone in my booth.

RS: So I love when the other people who've contributed to the story help me tell it, and that's what happens in a client-directed session. If the producer's there going, "No, this part, we're going to have a picture of a lion coming out from behind a tree, and this is where it gets really dramatic," that's a clue, to me, as to how to change my performance. So I love it when there's someone else on the line, helping me with the storytelling.

EH: Let's dig into that a little bit. You kind of mentioned there it's great to have the producer or director saying, "Okay, here we're going to have this image," but you mentioned something in there, helping you find the story. You know, the anecdote you mentioned there, just like finding... or, "We're going to have this image," is pretty blatant. Are there some instances that you've experienced, where they haven't had such a concrete idea, but they still kind of know what the story is, and how have they directed you in that way?

RS: Well, you know, I think by the time I get the script, whoever's written it has a concrete idea of what the story is, but sometimes, I don't get all of the information. For instance, the other day I had a promo from a TV station, and it was kind of like what I saw on the page was, "It's a story that could only happen here, a little girl lost, but what she found would save her, tonight at 10:00." Well, I'm like, "Why was she lost? What did she find? Was it a golden ring that was worth a gajillion dollars? Was it a dog? Was it..." You know?

RS: So, if all I get, if I don't have the whole story in front of me, it's sometimes hard for me to know how to shape it, because if it's a little girl who's lost because she's out in the woods by herself, that's a different story than a little girl who was lost because she couldn't find her dog.

RS: Oftentimes, I need the director, or the writer, to fill in the gaps in the script, so that I can tell the story. I will always give a really good read, and I understand too, it's not always possible to get that information. Sometimes, you know, you get the script, it's got to be done really quickly, and you do your best, so I'll give different attitudes, and I'll always give a good read, but if I know what the story is, that's the difference between a good, credible read and telling the story with your heart. You know what I mean?

EH: Yeah, definitely. I want to come back to attitudes in a second, but talking about finding the story and kind of getting into it, and I think a lot of talent, especially those of us with less experience... You've been around the business for a really long time. A lot of times, we get in there, and we need that help finding the story, because I think honestly, voice talent often forget that what they're doing is acting.

RS: Yeah, and you know... And that word, acting, can be really scary to a lot of voiceover people, because not all of-

EH: It's scary to me.

RS: Well, because not all of us are trained actors, you know? Many people who wind up in voiceover work are... They're musicians, or they're writers, or they're just people who decided that that's what they want to do, so acting has always been kind of a scary word for a lot of people, but the real thing is, regardless of what our background is, we're all storytellers, so the questions that we have to ask ourselves, which are really what actors ask themselves when they're creating a character is what's the story here, who are you talking to, where are you when you're talking to each other, how do you feel about the story, or this moment in the story, and why should anybody care?

RS: If you can ask those questions, there are coaches, voiceover coaches, who will actually take a piece of copy, and it might even be a sports... You know, let's say you're working with a sports story. It's not just about stats and "...watch the game tonight." It could be a story about heroes, and villains, and triumph, and tragedy, and comeback, and desperation, and preparation. So the story isn't just here's the thing we're selling, here's when it's going to be on, watch it or you won't be cool. Sometimes, there's a whole epic, epic story to be told in a very short period of time.

RS: So, I think that the more information that a producer, or writer, or client can give to the talent about what's this story really about, that will... That's often the difference between a credible spot and something that's really spectacular and moving, which is ultimately what we want when we do this thing, to move people, right?

EH: Yeah, definitely, but directed sessions aren't always possible. So what are some things that clients, directors, producers can do to set up not only themselves, but the talent for success, in the case where a directed session isn't possible?

RS: Well, I love it when they send me the music track that they're going to use, or if it's a TV promo, if they have sound bites that they're going to drop in. It gives me a sense of the attitude, or the emotion setting for the spot.

RS: For instance, I'm doing some work for ProMax, which is the big promotion... It's a convention of promotion directors and marketing people for TV networks and production companies. I was voicing... They're doing a big award ceremony, and I'm voicing the open for the ProMax awards. They sent me the copy, and it was like how do you create a good idea? Where does that come from? So that was the focus of the copy, and I was being really quirky with it, you know? Like, "Well, where do great ideas come from? Do you pull them out of thin air? Do they come because you drink a lot of coffee? Where does that come from?"

RS: So I did four or five takes, got ready to send it to the production company that's putting these together, and then I got an email with the music that they were using and a rough edit of what this thing is going to look like, and it was completely different. It was mysterious. It was otherworldly. It was ideas floating around out there in the universe, and then you pull one down, and how des a good idea become a great idea?

RS: It was a completely different thing than I gave them, because I was like, "Hey, great ideas. It's really cool," so having the music, a little bit of the audio track, and also, they had sent me a rough track, and this is like way... This doesn't happen very often, but there was a... The producer had given me a scratch track, so I would know the pacing, and it was completely different than what I was getting ready to send them, so if it's possible, I love having any associated audio or video, even if you have pictures, you know? Sometimes you'll get, if it's a commercial, you might get a storyboard of how the visuals are going to flow.

RS: Anything that can give me clues as to what's the emotional focus of this story that I'm telling is really, really helpful, and also, to be real world about it, it's going to save you time, because you know, if I would have sent in those quirky little reads to the producer, he would have gone, "Huh? Okay. That's not going to work. Now I got to write her another email. I'm going to send her..." You know?

EH: Yeah, everything's held up.

RS: Everything is held up, and again, to go back to directed sessions, directed sessions are also a time saver. If I'm able to know, really quickly, what the producer wants, and we're able to work on it together, that will ultimately save the producer time. In this case, even if the directed session is not possible, any supporting, associated elements of the production, audio, music, visuals, storyboard, pronunciations... If there are weird pronunciations of names, record the weird name on your phone and send me an MP3. That helps, because then I don't have to go home and go, "Dear Joe Schmo, I did a really good read. I hope you like what you hear. But by the way, how do you pronounce the guy's name?

EH: And there's three different pronunciations that I gave you, and I hope one of them's right.

RS: Yes. Yeah, and of course, none of them will be right.

EH: Right, exactly. I've totally had that happen too.

RS: Oh yeah, me too. Me too.

EH: It's like, "Oh, well, I tried, and you went on vacation after I got this, so-"

RS: Yeah.

EH: "... Here's what we're working with."

RS: Then, you know, that also happens too. Sometimes I'll get copy, and especially copy that comes in like on a Friday, and I know everybody's gone for the weekend, and I'm like-

EH: They hit send on their way out the door.

RS: Yeah, exactly. They're in their car on their way home, like picking up their kids on the way to school, or way home from school, and then I'm like, "Oh my gosh." There'll be an error in the script, you know? And I'm like, "Okay, do you mean this, or do you mean this?" So then I have to give alt reads, and you know. So, anyway.

EH: Yeah, and then that's just more work for them on their end too, which-

RS: Exactly, exactly. Yeah.

EH: ... is costing them money, so... Well, let's talk-

RS: For sure.

EH: ... about specs. It's kind of in the same vain, and this is a subject voiceover actors really love to roll their eyes about, and I hear a lot of bellyaching going on about specs in the voice industry. I've heard everything from, you know, "Screw the specs. They don't know really what they want. That's why they're auditioning," which I don't know how true that is, to "No. Study the specs the way lawyers study the Constitution," which that can mean a lot of things, but what are some helpful tips for copywriters to keep in mind to accurately communicate the intent of the piece to voice talent.

RS: Well, I fall right in the middle of the screw the specs and study them like the Constitution. I'm right in the middle. I think they're important.

EH: Specs are a spectrum.

RS: Yes, specs are a... Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And you know, I get a lot of copy that'll say, you know, "We want youthful, and approachable, and all of that," and well, that's great, but I mean, chronologically, I don't know that youthful is a word that I use about myself.

EH: But it means somebody... It means different things to everybody, right? Like, you-

RS: Yes, but it's a clue as to what they're-

EH: ... are youthful-

RS: ... looking for.

EH: ... to people. Right.

RS: Of. Yes, of course, but it's not an age. It's an attitude, right? Or it's a sound. So if I'm getting an audition, it's coming from my agent, it's coming from another talent, who thinks I should have it, it's coming from a website, you know? Whatever. I'm getting it from a number of different places, but somebody is sending it to me, because they think that I can do this.

RS: So, I look at the specs because they are, again, clues as to the emotion of the spot, or the character of the person that I'm supposed to be in telling this story. So, I think that for me, the specs have less to do about age, and gender, and race, and all of that than about giving me clues as to the emotional content of the spot.

RS: So I would rather see specs written like, "This person could be a soccer player, and she's a butt-kicker," or, "This is a mom, out on the soccer field, wearing a t-shirt from her kids' team." That tells me a lot more than Mom, 30-something-year-old mother of a school-aged kid.

EH: Correct, and it also tells you this is a mom that's involved. That mom is on the field, wearing that team's t-shirt, versus sitting in the stands, you know, cheering, or just kind of casually watching her kid play, which is honestly what a lot of those parents do, because you can only take so much seven-year-old soccer.

RS: Right. Right, exactly. Exactly. So, you know, if I get mom, 25 to 35, I'm like, "Okay. Well, that isn't me, so what can I bring? What are they really looking for," you know? And every once in a while, sometimes if I see something that is really not me, I'll just say... You know, I'll turn down auditions from time to time, and say, "Thank you, but I don't think this is... I can't pull this one out of my hat." But if it's empathetic, kind, engaged in our kids' lives, you know? That's something I can do. It's more important that the specs convey the emotion rather than the specific age, or race, or whatever of the storyteller, right?

EH: Yeah. Well, let's review kind of what we've gone over here, and just kind of tie a nice little bow on it. Directed sessions, if you can do them, that's the way to go. During those directed sessions, help that talent find the story. Don't be afraid to tell them what that story is, help them get there, and give them the talent, or give them the permission to really act, to get out of their own way.

EH: If you can't do a directed sessions, because they're not always possible, do everything you can to set yourself and the talent up for success. Send them audio tracks, visuals. What are those assets that are going along with the actual piece themselves? Give them everything possible to help them get there and find that story.

EH: Then lastly, specs. Emotion versus demographics, what is this person feeling, how are they kind of holding themselves? It's not so much important that we're looking for a woman that's age 25 to 35, or a man 40 to 50. Give us that attitude and that emotion that you're looking for. Did I get that right?

RS: Absolutely, you did.

EH: Yes.

RS: And you know, what's really cool about this is that I don't think that a lot of producers even know that they can ask to do a directed sessions, or that they can send you... I think they don't even know that they can do that, so you know, what you're doing with this conversation, and what I always want to do, is to give them permission to say, "Hey, are you available this afternoon for just 20 minutes or so, so we can connect and work together on this spot?" That makes me so happy. So yes, you have permission.

EH: Yeah, and I will say that because this is going out specifically to my own clients, guys, I always want a directed session. Direct me. Tell me how you want this. Let's make it easy on each other, and really get there quick and fast, and then yeah, then we get to work together, and that's always nice.

RS: Perfect.

EH: Let's wrap this up. Roberta, thank you so much for taking the time, for imparting so much wisdom on me and my clients. I really do appreciate it. Where can people learn more about you?

RS: Well, you can go to my website, which is robertasolomon.com. Solomon is S-O-L-O-M-O-N, robertasolomon.com. There's all sorts of groovy stuff there, and thank you for this conversation. It's been really, really fun.